What is the most misunderstood idea of all time?

Every year, Edge.Org asks prominent thinkers a big picture question on thought and knowledge. In 2005, they asked What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it? In 2006 it was What is your dangerous idea? In 2008, the big question was What have you changed your mind about? Why? In 2009, they asked thinkers to speculate on What will change everything? This past year, they asked What is your favourite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation? In In the interest of reader participation, here’s a fun question:

What is the most misunderstood idea of all time?

It could be a scientific theory, a philosophical position, a law, etc. I have only 2 rules for nominations:

1. Be specific. Avoid broad concepts like “God” or “Quantum physics”. What about God or quantum physics has been misapprehended?

2. Stick to fact. Avoid nominations that pertain to value judgments. e.g., I have refrained from nominating “the conflation of technological or economic progress with human progress”.

If the response to this call for nominations is strong, I’ll put up a totally unscientific poll in a future post. Have fun!

To get the ball rolling, here are some of my nominations:

The single most misunderstood idea I can think of is Rene Descartes’ Cogito ergo sum. Or I think therefore I am.

In postulating cogito ergo sum, Descartes was not engaging in feel-good pop psychology, telling people to believe in themselves and their dreams will come true. He was also not saying I am therefore I think. He was making the epistemological and metaphysical statement that his subjective experience of his own consciousness is proof that one thing that he can know for certain is that he himself exists in some form. His perceptions, beliefs and memories could all be delusions. But the fact that he can entertain these speculations is proof that a cognitive entity exists.

Other nominations:

* That evolution is driven by random chance. While genetic mutations occur at random, natural selection is the exact opposite of randomness.

* That evolutionary theory or Darwin himself ever argued for eugenics. Evolution is a theory of what is, not what ought. Further, in On The Origin of Species, Darwin specifically spoke against human eugenics.

* That, if evolution is wrong, that either theism in general or a specific religion must be right.

* That a scientific theory is “just a theory”.

* That strongly disagreeing with or discrediting someone else’s belief is akin to censorship or an infraction on their freedom of speech or belief.

What have YOU got?

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10 thoughts on “What is the most misunderstood idea of all time?

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